Beginning writers tend to write short stories.
No, I don’t mean the narrative form of ‘short story’ as opposed to a ‘novel’, I mean in actual, wordcount length. These are the stories that have chapters of 1000 words or less, that have action-filled, complex scenes and storylines that are over and done with in about 15000 words flat.
When I first started writing I can remember I always used to struggle with this. 1000 words and my story would be completely finished. The major conflict had been introduced, built up and summarily resolved and I’d only just cracked the second page. I used to try and pad out my writing with little phrases like ‘he ran his hands through his hair’ or, my personal favourite, ‘she blinked’.
But why did I struggle so much? What was going on that was making my writing so short in length and my plots so incredibly rushed?
One of the main reasons for this, I think, is the tendency to summarise.
He walked down the hallway and opened the door. Inside, there was complete silence. That is, until he stepped across the threshold. The lights turned on and the room was suddenly full of people. He blinked in the light as he read the giant banner pinned on the wall.
BAM! Scene done. 49 words and we’ve had our character (We’ll call him Darryl) walk down a hallway, open a door, be surprised by well-meaning friends and realise that he’s at a birthday party.
If the lead-up to the birthday party isn’t the point of the scene then that is totally acceptable. Why waste time talking about how Darryl arrived at the party when the actual scene is about what happens at the party? Hell, we could even simply start the scene when the lights turn on and he realises he’s at a surprise party. No harm, no foul.
Except what if that isn’t the point? What if Darryl’s had a really bad day (Let’s say that he’s a cop who has just been outwitted by the town’s resident psychopathic serial killer)
Then suddenly this scene becomes significant. Suddenly, the lead up to him being surprised by his friends becomes important to the story. And 49 words just doesn’t seem to cut it anymore.
Darryl walked down the hallway of his apartment building, feeling the strain of the day getting to him more and more with each step. Today had been hard. Today had been terrible, in fact. And he couldn’t quite shake the feeling that the killer was out there laughing at them.
He paused outside his door as that thought occurred to him, finally paying attention to the feeling that had been bothering him since he’d stepped out of the stairwell and on to his floor. There was something… not right. Not dangerous, sure, but not right. He didn’t know where the feeling came from, but long years on the force had taught him to trust his instincts.
When he reached the doorway he inspected it carefully. Not that the bland, generic door to his apartment would give him many clues. No, he had to go inside.
He swallowed the sensible part of his brain that told him to get the hell out. He swallowed it, then buried it under a pile of indoctrinated training. He couldn’t afford to run. He was the law, and if the law ran what was left? So he swallowed his natural fear and, found his keys. He inserted them into the lock and turned it. He entered with his hand lightly on his gun. His instinct told him that whatever was wrong wasn’t dangerous, but it always paid to be ready.
He stepped inside and let the door close behind him.
There was a moment of forced silence, a moment when anything could happen. And then the world exploded with light and sound.
Darryl blinked away the stars in his eyes as he recognised the people around him, his friends and family. He took his hand away from his gun as his eyes scanned the living room with its furniture pushed out of the way to make room for card tables covered with drinks and food. He allowed himself to relax when he saw the big sign hanging on the wall
From a 49 word summary to 337 words of a scene. What’s different? What changed? The events still happened in the same way. He walked down the hallway, he opened the door and he was surprised by people wanting to wish him happy birthday.
But the second example feels like it’s part of a bigger story. The second one is informed by not only what previously has happened but also by the character of Darryl. Because of Darryl’s background and well-honed instincts, simply walking down a hallway can lead to feelings of suspense and drama. He’s worried but he’s going to do it anyway. Walking down a hallway has shown a bit of his character.
This issue is something that has fascinated me since I started taking an interest in how stories actually work. How do writers take scenes where inconsequential things (like walking down a hallway) take on significance? How do they make something like walking down a hallway inherently interesting while not feeling like you’re delaying the story? Why do they do this in the first place?
The answer, I think, has something to do with pacing.
People read much much faster than we can write. (A little gem of knowledge I picked up from Kim Wilkins who once lamented that she’d gotten some fanmail saying that her fan had read her latest book in an afternoon. The book had taken her a year to write). That first example I wrote took you what? Ten seconds to read? It took me about two minutes to write. So, in my mind, Darryl walking down that hallway happened at a reasonable pace. For you that happened in comical fast-forward. Possibly with Yakety-Sax music.
By keeping in the essential action of the piece and adding in character elements I slowed down the scene. Not to a crawl (That’s purple prose and navel-gazing territory) but I slowed it down enough that it felt like a reasonable time to you, the reader (hopefully).
This perceived time is especially important in emotional scenes.
(In case you’re wondering, yes, I was distracted by hilarious Yakety Sax videos while writing this and figured that they’d do instead of actual, coherent discussion)
I’m going to assume that you’ve all read Harry Potter and have watched the (real version of the)movie above (If not, I’m both shocked and scandalised). Thus you know that the scenes shown used to be full of emotion and have been sped up to ridiculous levels. (I’m just going to ignore the effect of the music and concentrate on what speeding up the video does, okay? Perhaps watch it again but with your speakers muted)
But let’s concentrate on the part where Sirius dies. In the (actual) film, his death is fairly fast (as most deaths are) but Harry’s reaction to it is where we linger. The time we take on Harry’s reaction makes it more significant and makes us care more. It’s the difference between:
Sirius died. Harry screamed in anguish. Then he saw Bellatrix try to disappear and ran after her.
Sirius died. Harry tried to go after him, running. Strong arms caught him and he fought them, fought to get to Sirius, He let out an anguished cry of frustration and pain. This couldn’t be happening. Not again. Not to Sirius. The arms pulled him away and he fought, fought for all he was worth. He needed to stay here. Sirius wasn’t dead. He needed to stay here and be here when Sirius came back. Because this couldn’t be happening.
He saw Bellatrix LeSrange out of the corner of his eye as she quietly tried to disappear. No, not now. Harry couldn’t let her disappear now. Not after–
He began to run after her.
(I don’t have the books with me so I’m just making this up instead of getting a direct quote. Forgive me.)
When significant events (like a death) happen without the story lingering over them, they don’t feel important and they feel rushed. If Sirius had died and Harry got up and walked away with the equivalent of a ‘That’s done now, on with the story!’ the story wouldn’t work. It would feel rushed and frenetic and that’s not what you want, especially when you’re trying to create a mood or trying to emphasise the significance of a character’s death.
Scenes that need to slow down have the feel of a kid trying to tell you a story but running out of breath because they’re so excited about it. ‘And then this happened, and then this happened, and then THIS happened and oh man it was so cool! This happened after that and then we all sat down and played Xbox and it was great.’
You get the events but you don’t get the significance, you don’t get the story or the emotion and mood behind it. And that’s fine for a kid telling you about their amazing afternoon where a dinosaur came to teach them how to skateboard.
But it’s not great when you’re trying to tell a story people are going to care about.
When you’re writing emotional, significant or any scene that requires some kind of pacing (all of them) always be on the lookout for summarising. Always be aware that time passes a lot faster than you, the writer, could ever believe. Look out for it and work out ways to expand your scenes and pace them better. A scene may be summarised in actions but it’s your writing that brings them to life.
- On Beefing Up Your Novel (advancedfictionwriting.com)
- Wake up your readers! How to thicken a plot (alanrinzler.com)
- Creating Plots for Page Turners – Robert Dugoni’s Lecture at PNWA Writer’s Conference (englishemporium.wordpress.com)